Warming Hearts with Hearts Aflame, Third Sunday of Easter (A), May 4, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Third Sunday of Easter, Year A
May 4, 2014
Acts 2:14.22-28, Ps 16, 1 Pet 1:17-21, Lk 24:13-35

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:

 

To listen to a paraphrase of the homily given to students and parents in the religious education program, please click below:

 

The text that guided the first homily (and was the inspiration for the more periphrastic second) is below.

 

The Reform of the Church
Since his election as our Holy Father, Pope Francis has been working to reform the Church. The most fundamental aspect of that reform, he said in the speech to fellow cardinals the week before he was elected, is to help the Church and all Catholics go from maintenance to mission. He says that the chief corruption in the Church, the chief corruption of Catholics, happens when individually or institutionally we turn inward, “living within herself, of herself and for herself.” It happens when we become narcissistically focused on ourselves, on those who are coming, on the members of the ecclesiastical “club,” rather than seeing ourselves, our parishes, our Dioceses as all personally invested by Christ with the continuation of his mission. A Church that is introverted, he says, is a Church that’s sick. In order to be healthy, we, like the Pope, to become ecclesially extroverted, to move from a union with Christ in prayer and the Sacraments out to the world, to bring Christ and his saving Gospel to the outskirts of existence, to those who have wandered away from Christ and the Church he founded, to those whom everyone else forgets, like many of the people on the Catholic Charities Video before Mass today.

Pope Francis wrote about this missionary metamorphosis of the Church and of Catholics in his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel six months ago. “I dream,” he stated, “of a …missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures, can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” This is a reform that he wants to go far beyond the Vatican walls. He wants it to reach every Catholic. To be a disciple at all, he writes in his exhortation, is to be a missionary disciple. Pope Francis wants each believer to say with him, “I am a mission on this earth; this is the reason why I am here.”

Jesus’ New Evangelization Paradigm
The most powerful and practical expression of the new evangelization to which he is calling all of us in the Church is not found, however, in his apostolic exhortation. He expressed it last summer to the bishops of the world who had come together with him in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for World Youth Day. He did so in a commentary on today’s Gospel scene of Jesus’ interaction with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

“Let us read once again,” Pope Francis said last July, “the story of Emmaus. The two disciples have left Jerusalem. They are leaving … scandalized by the failure of the Messiah in whom they had hoped and who now appeared utterly vanquished, humiliated, even after the third day. Here we have to face the difficult mystery of those people who leave the Church, who, under the illusion of alternative ideas, now think that the Church – their Jerusalem – can no longer offer them anything meaningful and important. So they set off on the road alone, with their disappointment. Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age. It is a fact that nowadays there are many people like the two disciples of Emmaus; not only those looking for answers in the new religious groups that are sprouting up, but also those who already seem godless, both in theory and in practice.”

The concern Pope Francis describes is not just one for the bishops. It’s a preoccupation for all of us. So many of our family members, so many of our friends, so many of those with whom we went to Catholic school or CCD, so many of those with whom we received the sacraments, have ceased practicing the faith. They’ve wandered away from “Jerusalem.” They’ve drifted from Jesus and the Church he founded for our salvation. Because we love them, we want them to return to experience with us the love of God. But the question is how. That’s that question Pope Francis tackled in his talk to the bishops of the world.

“Faced with this situation, what are we to do?,” he asks. We need, he replies, to do what Jesus did. We need to meet them on the road away from Jerusalem, to enter into their dialogue, to take their questions seriously, and to try to help them to recognize what they’re leaving and why — and how and why they should return. “We need,” Pope Francis says, “a Church unafraid of going forth into their night, … of meeting them on their way, … of entering into their conversation.We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning. … We need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church that accompanies them on their journey; a Church able to make sense of the ‘night’ contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a Church that realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture.”

What Pope Francis says here is truly profound. The reasons why many of those we know have wandered away from Jerusalem and all it stands for contain within the reason for their return. What does he mean? We see that the disciples on the Road to Emmaus were leaving because they thought Jesus couldn’t possibly have been the Messiah if he were crucified by the very occupying force that they believed the Messiah would defeat and evict; when Jesus, however, starting with Moses and the Prophets, helped them to see that the Messiah had to suffer so as to enter into his glory, everything changed. The reason why they were leaving became the reason for their return. Likewise, if people have left the Church because they believe that Mass is boring, the way to get them back is to help them to understand what really happens at Mass and to do all we can, through our own enthusiastic participation, to contribute to making Mass a truly joyful, solemn, reverent encounter with God. If someone is leaving due to hypocritical, un-Christian conduct on behalf of Catholics they know, they’re confessing that they know that the Church is supposed to be holy; if we can help show them that holiness, we can be God’s instrument to draw them back. If people are leaving because of the death of a loved one, especially the premature death of a child of young parents or the sudden death of parents or grandparents of young children, many can with sadness abandon God for not doing anything to prevent the death. But within this angry response is contained the seed of deep faith that God who is love should want the best for our loved ones, he should want them to live and not just live another year but live forever. When we’re able to help others to recognize that that is in fact God’s desire and plan through the death and resurrection of Jesus, their anger can be converted into the reason for much greater passion in the faith.

But that doesn’t happen automatically. And it doesn’t happen fundamentally by sending the smartest people with the best theological arguments out to knock on doors on Sunday mornings, or visit the soccer fields, or set up shop outside the malls and supermarkets where people go to worship mammon on the Christian sabbath. It’s not fundamentally an intellectual exercise that draws people back. It’s the example of faith in the one entering into the discussion.

Pope Francis challenged the bishops assembled in Brazil and through them all of us to learn from what Jesus did. “Jesus warmed the hearts of the disciples of Emmaus,” he stressed. “I would like all of us to ask ourselves today: Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts? A Church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home? Jerusalem is where our roots are: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles… Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty?”

He’s asking whether our hearts are on fire with love for God, with love for the truths of faith, with love for them such that we can warm and melt their hearts to make them receive the truth. Are we capable of showing others that we love the beauty of our faith, even if we can’t understand every aspect of it or articulate it adequately? This is especially important when it comes to sufferings. Can we express that, far from punishments, the crosses that God asks us to bear are actually blessings? Pope Francis says, “Nothing is more lofty than the abasement of the Cross, since there we truly approach the height of love! Are we still capable of demonstrating this truth to those who think that the apex of life is to be found elsewhere? Do we know anything more powerful than the strength hidden within the weakness of love, goodness, truth and beauty?”

Pope Francis reiterated that many “want to forget Jerusalem, where they have their roots, but eventually they will experience thirst. We need a Church capable of accompanying them on the road back to Jerusalem! A Church capable of helping them to rediscover the glorious and joyful things that are spoken of Jerusalem, and to understand that she is my Mother, our Mother, and that we are not orphans! We were born in her… in Baptism, in the first encounter of love, in our calling, in vocation. We need a Church that kindles hearts and warms them. We need a Church capable of restoring citizenship to her many children who are journeying, as it were, in an exodus.”

Becoming Catholics Who Can Warm Others’ Hearts
How do we become that type of Church, that type of parish, that type of Catholic? Since we can only give what we have, if we’re going to be able to warm others’ hearts and accompany them on the road back to Jerusalem, we need to have hearts that are on fire and the patience and love required to meet people where they’re at and, like Jesus, enter into their conversations, their lives, so that their hearts will burn with the light of the truth and the heat of divine love, so that they’ll say to us what the disciples on the Road to Emmaus said to the Lord, “Stay with us!” The way we become capable of warming the hearts of those who have gone cold, of becoming moral compasses of all those who are lost, is by allowing Jesus to accompany us, to light our hearts on fire, to fill us with his own warmth so that we can pass that warmth on.

On the bulletin covers this week and well as in the new banner in the Sanctuary, I’ve placed a famous image of the walk of Jesus with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. I’ve put that there in the hope that you will recognize that Jesus is walking with us throughout life, throughout this Easter Season and in a special way throughout the Mass. In the Mass, as Saint John Paul II wrote in a beautiful apostolic exhortation a decade ago, six months before he died, Jesus does for us every “little Easter” (Sunday), even every day, the three things he did for the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.

Making our Hearts Burn in the Liturgy of the Word
The first thing Jesus did for them is he met them where they were at, with all their questions and doubts. Their sadness, as we know, prevented them from recognizing him in his resurrected body. This seeming stranger stuck his nose into the middle of their conversation and asked, “What are you talking about?” They thought he had no idea! So they told him about Jesus, a “prophet mighty in deed and word,” who they thought might be the one to “redeem Israel,” but who was betrayed and crucified. But then the incognito Jesus upbraided them, called them “foolish and slow of heart to believe” and, starting with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted for them all the passages of Sacred Scripture that referred to why the Messiah “had to suffer these things to enter into his glory.” Doubtless he would have mentioned Isaac’s carrying the wood for the sacrifice on his shoulders, Moses’ leading the Israelites in the Passover leading the people through the Red Sea and desert into the promised land, Isaiah’s prophecies of the Suffering Servant, the Book of Wisdom’s description that the just man would be beset by evil doers, the Psalms’ foretelling so many details of the crucifixion, Jonah’s prophetic act of spending three days in the belly of the whale, and so much more. As he was talking, the light of truth began to penetrate the great darkness of their sadness and their hearts began to burn and they began to make sense of all that had happened not only to Jesus but within them.

Likewise for us, during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass, the same Jesus begins with “Moses and all the prophets” and interprets for us “what refer[s] to him in all the Scriptures,” a work that the Holy Spirit seeks to continue in the homily that applies what Jesus teaches to our lives in such a way that, God-willing, our hearts begin to burn with the love of God expressed for us in salvation history and that we’re helped by him to reciprocate or him and others. Jesus wants the light that comes from his truth to penetrate whatever darkness we experience, so that we might see him with us along the way, that we might be strengthened by his presence in every experience. In the most famous Psalm of all, we pray, “Even if I should walk in the valley of darkness, I fear no evil, for you are with me with your rod and your staff to give me comfort” (Ps 23). The Good Shepherd seeks to give us that comfort every Mass. Saint John Paul II wrote in his exhortation, “It is Christ himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the Church,” and Christ wants to do with us here on Eastern Avenue what he did with the disciples on Emmaus Street. But we have to ask ourselves honestly whether we come to Mass with the readiness needed for Christ to set our hearts on fire when he speaks to us in Sacred Scripture. Are we at the edge of our seats, conscious that it is God who is speaking to us and giving us a response to the deepest questions we have? Or do we approach Sacred Scripture with ears covered with asbestos earmuffs and hearts surrounded by fire-extinguishing foam? Do we really mean our responses to God’s word — “Thanks be to God!” and “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!” — or are those just words? Do we grasp that Jesus really does have the “words of everlasting life” that alone are capable of bringing us to lasting happiness? If we do, then our whole approach to the Liturgy of the Word will change.

I always ask the students in CCD when I teach on Sunday mornings between the Masses what the readings of the Mass were that morning. If their hearts are on fire, if they’re really paying attention to the readings, they’ll be able to remember something. I’d like to give you the same quiz today so that you can know what God knows about the way you pay attention. First, what was today’s first reading about? (It was Peter’s proclamation to those assembled in Jerusalem on Pentecost Sunday). What was the Responsorial Psalm we sang five times? (“Lord, you will show us the path of life”). What was the second reading today? What New Testament Letter was it from? (It was St. Peter’s first letter describing how we have been redeemed by the infinite treasure of the blood of Jesus). If you got three-out-of-three, it shows that you were really paying attention and that the Word of God has a chance to really change your life. If you couldn’t recall any of the three, it’s not fundamentally a sign of a weak memory, but an indication that perhaps you weren’t listening in the right way. The point is that the Word of God really can’t light our hearts on fire unless we’re listening in a way in which we’re open to having our hearts ignited. And that gift of preparation to receive the Lord’s word as it ought to be received is something he’s prepared to give us.

Recognizing Jesus in the Eucharist
This focus on how we receive God’s word brings us to what the Emmaus scene reveals about the second part of the Mass. The disciples begged the anonymous Wayfarer to stay with them, but Jesus had something far greater in mind: he wanted to stay within them. That’s why when Jesus was at table, “he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them.” Then he seemed to vanish from their midst. But he hadn’t vanished at all, because, as those four verbs indicate to us, he had celebrated with them the Eucharist, as he had with his apostles three nights earlier in the Upper Room. They could no longer see Jesus with their eyes, but Jesus remained with them under the appearances of the Eucharist. Similarly, the more we hear God’s voice speaking to us through Sacred Scripture, the more our hearts burn out of love for God who reveals himself to us, the easier it will be to recognize Jesus in the Eucharist, just as the disciples with hearts burning in Emmaus saw him in the Breaking of the Bread. The reason for this is simple. The more attentively we hang on what Jesus is telling us in the Gospel and through the other readings that point to him, the easier it is to hear his voice and trust in him as he says to us in the Mass, “This is my body, given for you,” “this is the chalice of my blood… shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” The more we read about Jesus’ miracles the easier it is for us to accept the mind-blowing reality of the continuous miracle of the Eucharist. But if we approach Liturgy of the Word as if its purpose is to anaesthetize us rather than ignite us, if we don’t hear Jesus speaking to us through revelation, it will be harder for us to recognize him in the words of consecration and harder for us to receive the heart-igniting consequence of holy Communion with the Word-made-flesh.

Running to Share our Joy with Others
Finally, if we truly become aware that Jesus is speaking to us at Mass as he interprets for us the Scriptures and stays not just with us but within us in the Holy Eucharist, then we will be bursting with the desire to share him with others. The litmus test, the criterion for us to determine if we really grasp what is happening on this Emmaus Walk is whether or with how much zeal we yearn to share this encounter with others. That’s what we see in the disciples of Emmaus; they couldn’t wait to share with others their encounter with Jesus, what he had revealed to them about Sacred Scripture, what he done for them in celebrating Mass in their home. Even though it was already night and there were no streetlights in the ancient world, even though they were probably tired from the seven mile journey downhill, they burst through the door of their home and ran those seven miles up hill in pitch blackness in order to spread the word to the apostles that they had encountered the Lord Jesus. They had come into contact with Jesus — their hearts were burning, and now even their feet were burning — and they could not wait even until the morning to share the news. That’s what is supposed to happen to us at Mass. We’re supposed to burst through the doors of this Church seeking to bring news of our encounter with the Risen Jesus who speaks to us, who feeds us, to others. This is the reason why the Mass always finishes with a blessing by God and a commissioning as Jesus sends us forth to announce his Gospel. But though this proclamation must involve enthusiastic words, it can never remain just words. It must overflow into deeds, deeds in which we put into practice Jesus’ command to “do this in memory of” him, to sacrifice ourselves, our bodies, our blood, our sweat, our tears, our time, our money, our lives, washing others’ feet, patiently meeting them on the road, and trying to bring warmth of Jesus’ love to them and to bring them to the light of Jesus’ truth. When we truly encounter Jesus here at Mass, we should be running to try to care for those we saw in the Catholic Charities video and the multitudes like them in need.

So the missionary transformation of the Church that Pope Francis is trying to bring about in the Church begins ultimately in the Emmaus journey that is every Mass. It’s here that we recognize how Jesus accompanies us and then, together with him, we go out to accompany others back here to Jerusalem, to the place where Jesus, in accordance with all the Scriptures, seeks to lead us. Jesus’ ultimate destination is not Emmaus, or even Jerusalem on earth, but the eternal Jerusalem of heaven. May Jesus whom we have just heard in Sacred Scripture and who is preparing to feed us with himself and to send us forth make our hearts burn so that we may in turn, with Pope Francis, melt the hearts of all those who have become cold to the Gospel. May Jesus whom we beg to stay with us in our tabernacles inspire us to come to stay with him and bring others to stay with him in prayerful adoration. And may he help us, like he helped the disciples in Emmaus to recognize him in the Eucharist and fill us with such Eucharistic amazement that we will burst through these doors at the end of Mass and take that love, take that Gospel, take essentially Christ himself in disguise out to set the hearts of the world ablaze!

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1
ACTS 2:14, 22-33

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven,
raised his voice, and proclaimed:
“You who are Jews, indeed all of you staying in Jerusalem.
Let this be known to you, and listen to my words.
You who are Israelites, hear these words.
Jesus the Nazarene was a man commended to you by God
with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs,
which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.
This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God,
you killed, using lawless men to crucify him.
But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death,
because it was impossible for him to be held by it.
For David says of him:
I saw the Lord ever before me,
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
Therefore my heart has been glad and my tongue has exulted;
my flesh, too, will dwell in hope,
because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld,
nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence
.“My brothers, one can confidently say to you
about the patriarch David that he died and was buried,
and his tomb is in our midst to this day.
But since he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn an oath to him
that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne,
he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ,
that neither was he abandoned to the netherworld
nor did his flesh see corruption.
God raised this Jesus;
of this we are all witnesses.
Exalted at the right hand of God,
he received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father
and poured him forth, as you see and hear.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11

R/ (11a) Lord, you will show us the path of life.
or:
R/ Alleluia.
Keep me, O God, for in you I take refuge;
I say to the LORD, “My Lord are you.”
O LORD, my allotted portion and my cup,
you it is who hold fast my lot.
R/ Lord, you will show us the path of life.
or:
R/ Alleluia.
I bless the LORD who counsels me;
even in the night my heart exhorts me.
I set the LORD ever before me;
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
R/ Lord, you will show us the path of life.
or:
R/ Alleluia.
Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices,
my body, too, abides in confidence;
because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld,
nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.
R/ Lord, you will show us the path of life.
or:
R/ Alleluia.
You will show me the path to life,
abounding joy in your presence,
the delights at your right hand forever.
R/ Lord, you will show us the path of life.
or:
R/ Alleluia.

Reading 2
1 PT 1:17-21

Beloved:
If you invoke as Father him who judges impartially
according to each one’s works,
conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning,
realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct,
handed on by your ancestors,
not with perishable things like silver or gold
but with the precious blood of Christ
as of a spotless unblemished lamb.He was known before the foundation of the world
but revealed in the final time for you,
who through him believe in God
who raised him from the dead and gave him glory,
so that your faith and hope are in God.

Gospel
LK 24:13-35

That very day, the first day of the week,
two of Jesus’ disciples were going
to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus,
and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred.
And it happened that while they were conversing and debating,
Jesus himself drew near and walked with them,
but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.
He asked them,
“What are you discussing as you walk along?”
They stopped, looking downcast.
One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply,
“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem
who does not know of the things
that have taken place there in these days?”
And he replied to them, “What sort of things?”
They said to him,
“The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene,
who was a prophet mighty in deed and word
before God and all the people,
how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over
to a sentence of death and crucified him.
But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel;
and besides all this,
it is now the third day since this took place.
Some women from our group, however, have astounded us:
they were at the tomb early in the morning
and did not find his body;
they came back and reported
that they had indeed seen a vision of angels
who announced that he was alive.
Then some of those with us went to the tomb
and found things just as the women had described,
but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are!
How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!
Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things
and enter into his glory?”
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets,
he interpreted to them what referred to him
in all the Scriptures.
As they approached the village to which they were going,
he gave the impression that he was going on farther.
But they urged him, “Stay with us,
for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.”
So he went in to stay with them.
And it happened that, while he was with them at table,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and gave it to them.
With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him,
but he vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other,
“Were not our hearts burning within us
while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”
So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem
where they found gathered together
the eleven and those with them who were saying,
“The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!”
Then the two recounted
what had taken place on the way
and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.